Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood

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Kristin Luker. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. 324 pages. $19.95



In Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, Kristin Luker has written an extremely readable, highly structured account of the history of the abortion debate, from ancient times to the modern day. Her main contentions revolve around the importance of the medical profession in defining societies reaction to abortion during the 19th century, how that role suppressed the debate over it until the late 20th century, and how the effort by the medical profession to maintain the control it had over whether an abortion should or would be performed, ironically resulted in the initial laws that liberalized abortion, and finally gave rise to the pro-life and pro-choice movements that define the debate we see today.

Luker's overriding purpose in this book is to "...discover how people come to differ in their feelings about the rightness and wrongness of abortion." (Luker, 3) In furtherence of this goal she makes four arguments about abortion on which the book is predicated. First, that the moral status of the embryo has always been ambigious, by which she means that no philosophy or stricture of law from ancient times forward can claim to be definitive in terms of the legal, or moral status of the embryo. Eraly christian teaching she points out denounced abortion, "...but it is also true that the church's sanctions against abortion were almost never as severe as the penalties for the murder of an adult person." (Luker,3)

Second, she argues that the "...abortion debate is not about "facts," but about how to weigh, measure, and assess facts." (Luker, 5) The example she cites is the different way current activists interpret the heartbeat of an embryo. One side says it proves that it is a fully human life, while the other regards the ability of the embryo to breathe as being more important.

Third she argues that "...the debate about abortion is a debate about personhood." (Luker, 5)That debate is crucial for determining the protections an embryo may or may not be entitled to. Both sides agree that it is human, as it could hardly be anything else, but there is a difference as to what is believed about the status of the embryo as a fully formed person.Where one side views it as a "baby" with full rights of personhood, abortion is murder. On the other, a fetus is not yet a baby, and does not have the full rights of personhood.

Luker's fourth and final argument is that "...the abortion issue is emotionally charged because new political constituencies - primarily women - have vested social interests in whether the embryo is defined as a baby or a fetus." (Luker, 7) Whether the terminating a pregnancy is a right or not is reflective of the access different classes of women have in society. "The view that personhood is more of less moral...is perceived quite differently by persons who expect to have access to those resources and persons who have reason to fear that they may be denied such access." (Luker, 7)

Afcter a brief history of abortion in the ancient world up to the dawn of the 19th century, Luker then takes a careful look at the origins of the right to life movement in that century, and how medical professionals (all men), became dominant in that debate, denouncing abortion in moral terms, but regulating its use in scientific terms. She argues that with changes in the medical profession, with elite men trying to regulate the industry to crowd out who they viewed as charlatans and in order to squeeze them out of them a possible source of income, they began to argure that abortion was a moral wrong. The argument they used was primarily medical, that "...American women were committing a moral crime based on ignorance about the proper value of embryonic life." (Luker, 21) They argued since they knew best, they were obliged to save women from their own ignorance. Thus laws were passed, placing the decision as to whether a woman would be granted an abortion or not in the hands of medical men. The only proper reason for an abortion according to this stricture was to save the life or health of the mother. In practice this was an ambigious description as each physician interpreted it differently, abortion was nearly as accessible as it had previously been. And with it in the hands of respectible men, and with it primarily defined as a medical issue, the debate over it's morality was quited for nearly a century.

However, as medical treatment improved making abortion necessary to save the life of the mother almost non-existant, the debate began to change. Other definitions of "life" and "health" were used by physicians to justify abortions. This opened up the debate over abortion in the country. In the public mind previously, it was assumed that "life" and "health" were literally that. With physicians using these new definitions, decisions on when an abortion would be granted began to slip from the hands of physicians and into the public arena. Initially, as Luker shows among the middle class elite who argued abortion laws should be liberalized to protect physicians when making decisions over the propriety of an individual abortion. In effect physicians, who had argued in the nineteenth century that abortion laws should be strengthened to move the decision making over the procedure into their hands, now argued that the laws should be liberalized for precisely the same reason.

These succssful efforts to liberalize abortion laws had two wide reaching effects. First it dramatically increased the number of abortions in the country, with California alone seeing a 2000% rise in just a few years. In effect, any woman asking for an abortion was receiving one. And the second, and perhaps most important effect for the shifts in politics it portended, was that it gave rise to the militant pro-life and pro-choice movements.

First, Luker argues, that women, through a number of social and structural forces, began to see abortion as a personal right. A position they had never taken before. Luker argues this coincides with a number of phenomena - the sexual revolution, the approval of birth control pills, and a climate in the 1960's that was conducive to social change as evidenced by the womens right, ati-war, and civil rights movements among them. However, the most important social change was the increasing number of women in the workforce. As women became more responsible for their own livelihood, they began believe that they were solely responsible for their physical self, and that included decisions over reproduction and abortion. They were eventually validated in this in their minds by the 1973 Roe vs. Wade[1] decision.

In counterbalance to this new view by some women that abortion was now a personal right, was the growing power of the pro-life movement. This movement was animated at first by a disbelief that the moves to liberalize abortion would be popularly accepted. Luker argues that what characterized the pro-life community at first, and what made them initially unprepared to fight, was their unwavering belief that everyone agreed with the notion that human life began at conception. When they were disabused of this notion by the success at liberalizing abortion law, by the wide public acceptance of these new laws, and by opinion polls showing fairly widespread agreement with the notion that abortion was a fundamental right, they began to mobilize. They were given a specific goal by the same event that helped animate the pro-choice movement - the Roe vs Wade decision.

Ultimately the abortion debate comes down to the views each side has, as Luker noted in her introduction, in the relative personhood of the embryo. Where pro-choice activists regard it as a human, but less than a full person and therefore not granted the full rights of a person, pro-life activists believe that embryos are entitled to all the rights of personhood, that "...personhood is a 'natural' inborn, and inherited right, rather than a social, contingent, and assigned right." (Luker, 157)


Jim Daniels, fall 2005

In the introduction, Kristin Luker makes a point of noting that she hopes it will be impossible for a reader to say where she stands on the abortion issue, that the book with probably tick ff activists on both sides of the issue. She has largely succeeded in that goal in my opinion. In my opinion however, the pro-life movement has more to disagree with in this book. For by averring that the status of the "embryo" has always been ambigious, she has moved away from the absolutist position under which many (if not most) pro-life activist must operate. Whereas the are very few pro-choice activists who would argue that the right to an abortion has always been a fundamentally recognized right.

This book has been perhaps the most enjoyable I have read recently. It looked at a topic which I have thought about alot, and put it into historic context for me. It was well organized in the extreme. At no time did I have trouble following her lines of reasoning, and I found her predictions regarding the future debate on the issue, that is, that the debate would continue to be noted for its lack of civility, that any overturning of the Roe vs. Wade decision may produce a backlash similar to that against prohibition, and that it would become less important as the underlying debate over the proper place of the woman would become increasingly moot as women mover further into the workforce, to be spot on.--kjdaniels 02:26, 22 Nov 2005 (EST)

Bonnie Clark, Fall 2008

Kristin Luker’s Abortion & the Politics of Motherhood, is well written, skirting both sides of the abortion issue without revealing her own beliefs. Luker revealed her reasons for writing this book as both a desire to explore her “feelings about an enormously complicated topic” and “an attempt to understand where the profundity and the power of the debate comes from” (xiii & xiv). She succeeded in providing the reader with an understanding regarding the origins of the abortion debate, but never reveals her own feelings regarding this issue.

Luker provides information about the connection between the pro-choice movement and the women’s movement. The new claim which entered the debate around 1967 involved abortion as a woman’s right which is central and essential to their right to equality (92). In contrast, pro-life activists consider motherhood as the primary role for women. They believe that “giving women control over their fertility” invalidates intricate traditional social male-female relationships (160). These relationships, in their world view were designed to protect women and children (160).

Among the issues raised in the abortion debate are the cost of medical care and the subsequent debate regarding who should be eligible to benefit from these expensive resources. This debate which surfaced in the years following the Roe v. Wade decision, centers on bioethical issues such as brain death (6). A result of this debate was the opportunity for patients and their families to decide whether or not to accept heroic life saving measures such as life support. This resulted in the patient’s right to declare their desire for a DNR/DNI (do not resuscitate and do not intubate) order from their physician enabling them to die naturally. If Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court, could this right be the next to fall? In providing a history of gynecological surgery, Luker omitted a major portion of that history in her statement: “By the middle of the nineteenth-century…With the possible exceptions of the thermometer, the stethoscope, and the forceps, the technological tools of modern medicine were yet to come” (31). However by 1690, in addition to forceps, scissors and crochets (or extractors) were used in cases of childbirth with prolonged labor (or other problems) to remove the fetus in pieces. Between 1845 and 1849, Dr. James Marion Sims devised a surgical procedure for repair of vesico-vaginal fistulas using a speculum of his own design and silver sutures. Also, between 1842 and 1849 surgical anesthetics (nitrous oxide, ether and chloroform) were discovered. More technology was available during the late nineteenth century than the author indicates.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book although I did notice some omissions which I had previously encountered in my own research. However, I was reminded about the link between abortion rights and the right to die in cases of fatal injury or illness and the possibility that if we lose the right to one, we may eventually lose the right to the other. --Blclark 14:21, 3 November 2008 (UTC)

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